ODION IGHALO has his beloved sister Mary’s name inscribed on his football boots.
But United’s new loan signing admits he is struggling to come to terms with her sudden death, breaking down in tears when he is on his own.
Speaking for the first time about the December tragedy, Ighalo revealed: “I feel very emotional because it has not really struck me that my sister is gone forever and I am never going to see her again.
“Sometimes when I am alone and I just remember her, I have one sharp pain in my heart.
Mary was like a mother to all of us. Even when I was young she would look after me.
“My twin sister, Akhere, will call me, crying, saying she misses her and, sometimes when I am alone, I cry too.
“It is a very painful loss but I am trying to be strong as a man.”
The Nigerian striker, 30, posted a poignant picture of himself with Mary on Instagram, announcing her shock death, accompanied by the words “RIP sister” together with a broken heart emoji.
Married Mary Atole collapsed at her home in Canada on the morning of December 12, just as she was getting her children ready for school. She was only 43.
Ighalo added: “It was a very painful moment.
“She just collapsed and died before the kids could even call for an ambulance. When the medics arrived they tried to revive her but she was already gone.”
His heartache is shared by Akhere, elder sister Beatrice, brothers Austin and Moses and mother Martina.
Ighalo said: “Although she was my older sister, Mary was like a mother to all of us.
“Even when I was young she would look after me. She tried to make everybody happy, make sure everyone was OK.”
Mary was such a passionate United fan a framed picture of her in a Red Devils shirt, with her name on the back, hung on the wall of her home.
They had grown up together in Ajegunle, a district in the heart of Nigeria’s capital city Lagos.
Ighalo added: “My sister was a strong United fan. All of us grew up watching Manchester United, we all supported them.
“She always prayed I would sign for United. Even when she came to watch me in the Premier League playing for Watford she hoped I would join United.
“The painful part for me is that I now HAVE signed for United, but she is not here to see it.
“However, I know she is up there watching me.
PRAYING FOR CHINA
DEVOUT Christian Odion Ighalo is praying for China as the deadly coronavirus claims more lives.
The striker, who spent three years in the Chinese Super League and won last year’s CFA Cup final, is anxious health chiefs can halt the spread of the deadly flu.
He said: “It is very sad what is going on in China.
“I am praying for China, for all those who are infected and who have lost their lives.
“China is part of my life, part of my history. I lived there for three years, had no problems and enjoyed my stay.
“It’s one of the best countries I have ever played in, so I pray by God’s grace it is resolved very soon so people can return to a normal life. God bless China.”
Although Ighalo has been training on his own since jetting into Manchester from Shanghai, he rubbished claims he has been banned from United’s Carrington HQ due to fears over the virus.
The rest of the squad are in Spain on a winter break. And he added: “I could not go because I had just arrived from China.
“That’s why I remain here. There is nobody at Carrington, everybody is in Spain.
“This is what we discussed before I came and before the team travelled to Spain.”
“That is why I am going to play with her name on my boots, so she is always with me at Old Trafford or in any game for Manchester United.
“Every goal I score from now until I finish my career will be dedicated to God and to her.
“I have written her name on my special white T-shirt and put her name on my boots. I want to show the world she is always with me.
“It means she can feel me playing at Old Trafford, feel that dream we all prayed for, even though she is not here to see it.
“But she will be on my feet, assisting me on the pitch.”
Devout Christian Ighalo completed his loan from Chinese Super League club Shanghai Shenhua on deadline day last month.
Despite interest from other Premier League and European clubs he was only interested in signing for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer — even if it meant taking a pay-cut on his £300,000-a-week Chinese wages.
However, the player who scored 46 goals during his three seasons in China feared the deal could be wrecked by the coronavirus crisis.
He admitted: “Yeah, I was a bit scared.
“My agent, Atta Aneke, called me from Norway and said United wanted me, but were looking at another striker because I was in China and there was the coronavirus.
“I wanted it to happen, to fulfil a lifetime dream, so joining United was more important to me than money.
“Of course having money is good, but playing for Man United is a dream I have had since I was little.
“I wanted it to happen but I was relaxed. People starting sending me messages, my children were telling me ‘Hey, Papa, I hope it’s going to happen’.
“But I told them ‘If it is the will of God, it will happen, if it is not, then it won’t’.
I said ‘No, if it is not United, don’t speak to them. Let’s do the deal with United, I don’t mind a pay cut’
“I was calm until Atta called me and said ‘Man U have decided they want you’. Then I told him to make it happen.
“I had been playing in China for three years and was OK there. I had some offers from Premier League clubs and from Europe.
“But I told my agent ‘If it is not Manchester United I am not coming’, even if it meant taking a pay cut to play for them.
“Some other Premier League club came and offered more money, but I said ‘No, if it is not United, don’t speak to them. Let’s do the deal with United, I don’t mind a pay cut’.
“Achieving it makes me even more grateful and to become the first Nigerian to play for United is an honour I will cherish for the rest of my life.”
After the loan transfer was agreed, Ighalo flew from Shanghai to Dubai then on to Manchester, as his new team-mates departed for their warm weather training camp in Spain.
Since then, Ighalo has been working with a personal trainer at the Great Britain taekwondo centre near his Lowry Hotel base in Manchester.
But he will join up with his new team-mates tomorrow and is expected to play some part in Monday’s clash at Chelsea.
Ighalo added: “I want to thank the fans for all the messages of support since the day I arrived in Manchester.
“This is the biggest club in the world. I know it’s a new team and a big challenge, but I am going to give my best in every game to make sure we accomplish what we want. God bless all the United fans.”